Piano Inspires Podcast: Michelle Conda

To celebrate the latest episode of the Piano Inspires Podcast featuring Michelle Conda, we are sharing an excerpted transcript of her conversation with Andrea. Want to learn more about Conda? Check out the latest installment of the Piano Inspires Podcast. To learn more, visit pianoinspires.com. Listen to our latest episode with Conda on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, YouTube, or our website!

Jennifer Snow, Michelle Conda, and Samuel Holland after Conda was presented the Lifetime Achievement Award at NCKP 2023: The Piano Conference.

Andrea McAlister: Now, let’s dive back a little bit because we’re talking about, you know, this passion and the experience of making music. Was this something that you always were called to do? So when you were young and starting lessons and—did you always have that joy about making music? Was there ever a time that you thought, “oh, I don’t know if this is something that I love enough to make my profession,” or, “I don’t want to practice today?”

Michelle Conda: Oh, I go every day “I don’t want to practice today!” You know, practice is one of those things that I have a saying it’s called “Butt to the Bench.” Once you get your butt to the bench, it’s lots of fun, but there’s a lot of things that can get in the way of that. So it takes a lot—I know—a lot of discipline to do that. But, to answer the first part of your question, by age seven when I could write, my first little essay about what you’re going to do when you grow up [was]: “I’m going to be a piano teacher.” But even before that—the piano was mine. When I was like five years old, we got a piano for Christmas. Actually on one of the pictures I sent in, they show me at that age when I was a little curly haired girl. I was cute then, and—

AM: You’re cute now.

MC: But still, my piano’s in the background. My piano. My sisters were not allowed to play it. That was my piano. Then, after a year or two, I had to get my tonsils out. I did not want to get my tonsils out. I acted naughty, and finally ended up having to go home because I got a fever. But in the meantime, I made life miserable for everybody at the hospital, everyone. Well, I still had to get them out. So my mother baited me. She goes, “If you are a nice girl, you can get piano lessons.” I was the nicest girl you’ve ever seen, and I got my piano lessons and it was so great. I practiced every day. I think the things that really helped me a lot as a child [were], first of all my mother; she’s still my inspiration. She’s ninety-five, still on her own, still plays the piano.

AM: Oh, great.

MC: Oh, yeah. But she would inspire me to practice. She would just say, “I love hearing you play this.” She wouldn’t correct me ever—well, she didn’t like me chewing gum. But besides that, she didn’t correct me and music making became just a joy. Then, honestly playing for church, because when you first start playing for church—I probably was horrible. I didn’t know that; everybody said I did great. And then you just keep playing and you play for this musical and that musical—your life! Being a pianist is not a job. It’s a lifestyle. And it was my lifestyle all through high school, all through grade school.

Then I went to college my freshman year. For one brief week, I said, “I think I want to be a philosophy major.” That week went pretty fast. What happened is I got Angie Schmid, my piano teacher, who inspired me to go deep into music. I had no idea how deep you could go into music, and that was it. I finished my philosophy course and I was out. Music became the center of my life again. I—you know, you fight it your whole life kind of. If you’re a faculty member, you can get tuition remission, and I’ve looked through course catalogs before, like we all do, and say, “Oh, maybe I’ll do this, maybe I’ll—.” But when it really comes down to it, I’ve been led in this direction. The only other part of this direction I’ve been led also to is the teaching element, and I started teaching when I was very young, probably eight, nine, ten years old.

AM: That’s very young.

MC: Yeah.

AM: Who were you teaching?

MC: The neighborhood kids, everybody. Well I was already playing pretty well by ten. I just ended up teaching all the neighborhood kids. Oh, my God, I was such a horrible, horrible teacher. But luckily, they were very forgiving of my teaching and I got better. The more I got better, the more I did a better job teaching. Also, the more I became student-centered and less ‘this is what I want you to do,’ and really paid attention to how someone was learning, I got even better. Then—tell me if I bore you—but I started to teach communiversity classes. These are evening courses. I just loved teaching them. There would be a waiting list for these classes. I couldn’t understand what I was doing right. That’s why I decided to get my doctorate, because I wanted to find out what I was doing right. Thank you, and thank all the people from the University of Oklahoma—you helped me, encouraged me. When I learned how people can encourage you to do well, that also changed my teaching. Because I learned encouragement is so much better than negative talk.

AM: It’s interesting to hear you talk about the student-centered part of your teaching and how that developed. It takes some people decades to learn that that’s how students learn best, and that encouragement is how students learn best. It seems like that’s just something that you realized from an early age.

If you enjoyed this excerpt from Piano Inspires Podcast’s latest episode, listen to the entire episode with Michelle Conda on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, YouTube, or our website!


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